Credit Breaches Are Hazardous to Your Financial Health

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 17, 2014

It seems to happen all the time. Just recently Target Corporation, Home Depot, Dairy Queen and Neiman Marcus – followed by Michaels, and more recently JPMorgan Chase and Kmart – found their data systems being breached. I thought that I had dodged the bullet from being a victim until last month when I received a letter from my local savings and loan warning me about a potential security breach affecting my credit card.

Data breaches and hacking annually affect millions of Americans, costing billions of dollars and countless hours for consumers to correct problems resulting from identity theft and fraud that results in their checks bouncing and being accessed late fees.
Data Breaches Not a Rare Occurrence

What exactly is a data breach? Simply put, a data breach occurs when a company’s database, typically containing customer information, is hacked by sophisticated malware programs that can infiltrate a company’s network, sometimes for months before being noticed.

“Not that long ago, we were taught to always know where your wallet or purse was to ensure we didn’t fall victim to a pickpocket. Yesterday’s common street thief is today’s computer hacker, and it is often months before you realized they’ve virtually picked your pocket,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

According to the Rhode Island Attorney General, his staff has been busy in the past year informing consumers about the data breaches at some of best-known retail and financial companies. He says last year, there were multiple reports of massive data breaches at the nation’s largest corporations. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of companies have suffered one data breach this past year, and 60 percent say they’ve been struck by multiple data breaches in the last two years.
“In today’s technology–driven and paperless retail marketplace, it is inevitable that some, if not all, of your personal and financial information – credit card and banking information, email, and social security number – will be compromised,” warns Kilmartin.

Congressman James Langevin has been a leader on the issue of cyber security, and is leading efforts inside the Washington Beltway. “Stories of public data breaches are becoming increasingly common, and if a Fortune 500 company is susceptible to these types of breaches, we can be sure that similar attacks are possible among other retailers and businesses,” said Congressman Jim Langevin, the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus. “I have been sounding the alarm on cybersecurity for years, and I fear the consequences if we delay any further the steps needed to strengthen our technology infrastructure,” said Langevin.

The Democratic lawmaker, serving the second congressional district since 1991, says, “I am particularly concerned about the potential for cyber attack against critical infrastructure, including our power grid, wastewater management and banking and health care systems, just to name a few. All of these essential services are tied into technology, and it is going to take both a strong commitment from government and a continued partnership between public and private industry in order to get us where we need to be on cyber security. Securing these networks must be a priority, and I believe it is a crucial component of our national and economic security strategies.”

Kilmartin says make no doubt about it, data breaches are a crime, but law enforcement has significant hurdles to overcome when investigating cyber crimes. “Companies that have been targets of recent data breaches are working with federal law enforcement authorities to investigate how the breach happened and who is responsible,” he notes, stressing that early evidence shows that most of the sophisticated criminal enterprises that commit cyber crimes operate outside of the United States, often in Eastern Europe. “The hackers are out of the reach of traditional law enforcement and US Courts, but that has not stopped local, state and federal authorities from investigating,” he says.

Consumers Must Become Their Own Watchdog

“Consumers in today’s world need to continually monitor their electronic purchases, their personal medical information, as well as their banking records. Consumers can follow all the rules to protect their information, and if a business or other entity entrusted with this information is vulnerable, consumers, through no fault of their own, can still be impacted. Many times, a consumer’s first contact with law enforcement may be dealing with the aftermath of a data breach or identity theft. Please know that we are there to help you and will thoroughly investigate to resolve these crimes,” stated Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.

Kilmartin also confirmed that he and attorneys general in several states are looking into these data breaches and hope to get answers from the companies targeted as to how and why they took place. “There are multi-state investigations by attorneys general into how these companies left consumer information vulnerable to an attack,” he said, noting, “as consumer advocates, we are determined to get to the bottom of these data breaches and to work with the companies to better protect the consumer.”

Kilmartin believes it is up to consumers to be their own watchdog: “While companies and law enforcement officials are trying to put an end to this trend, the only way someone can protect themselves is to be vigilant in monitoring their personal and financial information. And by that, I mean check your banking and credit card statements regularly and limit how much information you share with companies.”

Keeping Credit Card Thieves At Bay

Kilmartin says, “I always tell consumers that the best way to protect yourself from scams is education. Being wary of potential scams, and being a savvy consumer is the best way to stop a scam artist in their tracks.” He offers the following common sense tips to protect your credit:

Check your credit card and debit card statements regularly, and on a line-by-line basis. One may think to only look for large unauthorized charges, but thieves may place a small charge – only a few dollars – to check if the card is active. If that charge goes unnoticed, thieves will then make a large unauthorized purchase. Report all suspicious charges, no matter how small. And, check your statements every day if possible. “It may be too late to recoup some or all of your money if you don’t report it immediately,” said Kilmartin.

If you notice an unauthorized charge, report it to your financial institution immediately, cancel the card and have the bank issue you a new one.

Kilmartin recommends consumers take advantage of free credit monitoring many affected companies are offering. “Companies who have been impacted by a data breach don’t want to lose customer loyalty. Many offer up to one free year of credit monitoring for any consumer who shopped there during the breach,” he adds.

Consider adding a fraud alert to your credit report file to protect your credit information. A fraud alert can make it more difficult for someone to get credit in your name because it tells creditors to follow certain procedures, which may include contacting you directly, before authorizing the credit card, says Kilmartin, noting that while this may delay your ability to obtain credit immediately, it will protect you from someone fraudulently opening a credit card in your name.

Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to be suspicious of emails, phone calls, or text messages claiming to be from your bank or a retailer you shopped at. Hackers may not have gained access to all the information they need, and will often use the information they do have, like name, date of birth or credit card number to convince you to part with even more sensitive information, such as passwords or social security numbers. When in doubt, call your financial institution directly with questions. The phone number is usually on the back of credit cards and debit cards.

Update your computer’s anti-virus software. Just as hackers have wormed their way into secure databases at large-scale companies, they can worm their way into your computer.

Change your passwords. The most basic way to stop an intruder is to lock the door. Set strong passwords and don’t reuse them for different accounts, especially for accounts that involve your banking or credit card information.

Go “old school” and pay with cash or check. While we have become accustomed to using credit and debit cards to make everyday purchases, every company still takes U.S. currency.

Under federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. You may obtain a free copy of your credit report by going to http://www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Study: Citizens Over Age 50 Not a Drain on Economy

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 10, 2014

Almost one year ago, Oxford Economics in cooperation with AARP released a briefing paper, The Longevity Economy. The national study gave the nation’s largest aging advocacy group the ammunition it needed to dispel the myth that baby boomers and seniors are not a drain on the nation’s economy, rather researchers found that they drivers of the nation’s economic growth. This data will keep businesses, investors and inventors from overlooking the wants and needs of older Americans as they develop new products and business plans.

This week the national analysis was supplemented, detailing the state level contribution of people over 50.

Shattering a Myth

According to Jody Holtzman, AARP’s Senior Vice President Thought Leadership, the nonprofit aging advocacy group commissioned the initial Longevity Economy report from Oxford Economics to challenge society’s and Washington’s misconceptions that people over age 50 are only a drain on the economy. He said, “to the contrary the analysis shows that this population is an important driver of economic growth in key sectors of the United State economy such as technology, healthcare, travel and education.”

Holtzman says the formal economic impact analysis has been conducted, both nationally at the state level can shift the way federal and state policy makers will view the nation’s aging population. “Not only can we “afford” the growing population of older people, we can’t do without them, as they are a key source of economic growth, jobs, salaries, and taxes that benefit people and families of all ages and generations,” he says.

“The economic activity of the Longevity Economy provides employment for nearly 89 million Americans with $3.8 trillion in salary and wages, contributes $1.75 trillion in Federal and state and local taxes annually and is a huge source of charitable giving, contributing nearly $100 billion annually to a variety of causes and concerns – nearly 70% of all charitable donations from individuals,” says Holtzman.

The 19 page study notes that by 2032, it is projected that over age 50 Americans will make up about 52 percent of the US GDP. The average wealth of the households of these individuals is almost three times the size of those headed by people ages 25 to 50.

As to technology, Baby Boomers (ages 50 to 68) are heavy users of the internet and social networking and they spend more time online when compared to either Generation X (ages 34 to 49) and Generation Y (ages 14 to 33) consumers. Boomers average online spending over a three month period amounts to $650 outpacing the two younger generations.

Researchers also found that those over age 50 fill nearly 100 million jobs, generating over $4.5 trillion in wages and salaries.

The Longevity Economy is not a passing phenomenon, observes Holtzman, noting that increased life spans will result in a “consistently large over-50 population even after the Baby Boomer wave has crested.”

Holtzman adds, “The particular wants and needs of the Longevity Economy when it comes to consumer spending, housing, healthcare and employment have dramatic implications for business, society and government.” Not only does the Longevity Economy have a strong, net positive economic impact on the nation’s economy, the nation’s age 50 and over “will also continue to serve as a significant resource and safety net for their parents and children.”

A Snap Shot of Rhode Island

Despite being 36 percent of the state’s population in 2013 (expected to reach 38 percent in 2040), the total economic contribution of the Longevity Economy accounted for 46 percent of Rhode Island’s GDP, or $24 billion, noted by AARP’s release of its state specific analysis. The impact on the state’s GDP was driven by $18 billion in consumer spending by over 50 households.

Rhode Island’s $24 billion Longevity Economy GDP supported 54 percent of the state’s jobs (0.3 million), 47 percent of employee compensation ($14 billion), and 52 percent of state taxes ($2 billion), says the state specific economic analysis,

Also, the state specific dated noted that the greatest number of jobs supported by the Longevity Economy were in health care (88,000), retail trade (47,000) and accommodation & food service (33,000). Overall, people over age 50 make up 34 percent of the state’s workforce. Sixty seven percent of the workers ages 50 to 64 are employed compared to 79 percent ages 25 to 49.

Finally, 11 percent of the state’s older workers (ages 50 to 64) are self-employed entrepreneurs, compared with 7 percent of people ages 25 to 49. Forty four percent of these older workers work in professional occupations, compared to 47 percent of the younger workers.

The [Rhode Island] analysis takes a closer look at something we have known for some time,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Rhode Islanders 50-plus are an important driver of our state’s economy,” she says.

Connell says the data complements findings in a paper published recently by the journal PLOS ONE, a group of international researchers at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, the Max Planck Institute and the University of Washington. “It concluded that as retirement approaches and certainly after retirement, leisure time increases. And while there are many who will gear down, relax, travel and devote time to grandchildren (traditional retirement), Baby Boomers – better educated, healthier and with greater access to information than any previous generation of retirees – will have much more time to provide the energy and intellectual capacity, as well as the capital resources to help drive innovation,” she adds.

“With that in mind, AARP partners with the Small Business Administration to support ’encore entrepreneurs’ 50 and older. I agree with SBA Administrator Karen Mills, who says retirees are using their decades of expertise and their contacts to start new businesses and to finally pursue that venture that has been stirring their dreams for all these years,” Connell says.

“So not only do the people who make up the longevity economy represent an economic impact,” Connell added, “they are in a position to be leaders in innovation.”

AARP’s economic data analysis has shattered the age-old myth that a growing older population will ultimately bankrupt the federal and state’s budgets because of the need for increased programs and services for these individuals. Data shows us that America’s oldest generations can be considered the gas that revs the state and nation’s economic engine. Federal and State policy makers need to get this point.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health and medical care issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Report: Caregivers Face Demanding Personal and Professional Challenges

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 3, 2014

Providing care to cognitively and complex chronically impaired family members can be hazardous to the health and mental wellbeing of caregivers, says a jointly issued report by the United Hospital Fund and AARP Public Policy Institute. The researchers found that the demanding personal and professional challenges lead to high levels of self-reported challenges.

According to Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care to People with Cognitive and Behavioral Health Conditions, a publication in the “Insight on the Issues” released on Aug. 19, a majority of respondents (61 percent) reported constant stress from having their feeling stress “sometimes to always,” between their caregiving responsibilities and trying to meet other work or family obligations.

Adding to the challenge, people with cognitive and behavioral conditions (collectively termed in the 13 page report “challenging behaviors”) were generally sicker than other people requiring caregiving. These persons needing care often had chronic physical health diagnoses—including cardiac disease, stroke/hypertension, musculoskeletal problems (such as arthritis or osteoporosis), and diabetes—at higher rates than those without cognitive and behavioral conditions. Further illustrating the complexity, family caregivers of people with challenging behaviors often met with resistance from the person they were trying to help. Caregivers noted that “more cooperation from their family member” would make one key medical/nursing task—managing medications—easier.

The new findings are drawn from additional analysis of data based on a December 2011 national survey of 1,677 family caregivers, 22 percent of whom were caring for someone with one or more challenging behaviors. Earlier findings were published in the groundbreaking Public Policy Institute/United Hospital Fund report Home Alone: Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care and in earlier publications in the “Insight on the Issues” series, including Employed Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care and Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care to Their Spouses.

The report concludes, “All caregivers need training and support; caregivers who are responsible for people with challenging behaviors are among those most in need of assistance.”

Focused caregiver assessments were one of six recommendations outlined in the report. The others were better integration of behavioral and physical health programs, efforts to set up respite and adult day care programs for family caregivers, training of family caregivers to better understand and respond to challenging behaviors, better training of health care providers to work more effectively with family caregivers, and revisions to most support and training materials for family caregivers to reflect care management of the whole person, rather than just the specific condition.

“Caregiving is rarely uncomplicated, “said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Add these issues and the stress on the caregiver grows and can feel unceasing. We need to be mindful of the circumstances caregivers face. In the larger scheme, this points to the need a strong strategy that provides support to all caregivers.”

Susan Reinhard, AARP’s Senior Vice President for Public Policy, adds: “Take a hard look at this profile of today’s overstretched and overstressed caregiver for someone with cognitive or behavioral issues,”. “This is the face of caregiving’s future unless we improve long-term services and support for family caregivers,” she said, pointing to the expected surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and the projected drop by more than half in the ratio of potential caregivers to those likely to need care.

“Caring for a family member is hard enough when the family member is on the same page,” said co-author Carol Levine, Director of the Families and Health Care Project for United Hospital Fund. “But when that family member has a cognitive impairment, like Alzheimer’s, or a behavioral issue, such as depression—things that can interfere with daily life as well as decision-making—the burden on the caregiver is multiplied. And currently, our health care system often doesn’t provide the kind of support that can make a difference.”

Gearing Up

According to the Rhode Island Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2013 an estimated 5 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. Unless more effective ways are identified and implemented to prevent or treat this devastating cognitive disorder, the prevalence may well triple, skyrocketing to almost 16 million people.

Meanwhile, with 24,000 Rhode Islanders afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, every Rhode Islander is personally touched, either caring for a family member with the cognitive disorder or knowing someone who is a caregiver or patient. As indicated by the recently released AARP/United Hospital Fund report, many of these caregivers will doubly challenged by taking care of a loved one with chronic diseases who also have chronic and behavioral issues.

As reported in a previous commentary, both federal and state officials are gearing up to battle the nation’s impending Alzheimer’s epidemic.

In February 2012, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its draft National Plan, detailing goals to prevent or treat the devastating disease by 2025. Almost six months later, in May 2012, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a joint resolution (The same month that the final National Plan was released.), signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee, directing the state’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council to lead an effort to create a state-wide strategy to react to Rhode Island’s growing Alzheimer’s population. Almost one year later, a 122 page document, the Rhode Island State Plan for Alzheimer’s Disease Disorders, was released to address the growing incidence in the Ocean State.

Amazingly with the November election looming, candidates for Lt. Governor may be discussing a multitude of issues, but not the Ocean State’s impending Alzheimer’s epidemic and its impact on caregivers. Nor are the candidates talking about how they would continue the work of Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts in implementing the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council’s efforts to fully implement the State’s Alzheimer’s plan.

With the Lt. Governor being given the responsibility of overseeing the work of the Long-term Care Coordinating Council, maybe aging policy issues like the state’s impending Alzheimer’s disease epidemic and its impact on state resources and caregivers should be thoroughly debated. It’s a no brainer.

Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care to People with Cognitive and Behavioral Health Conditions was produced with support from the John A. Hartford Foundation. The report is available at https://www.uhfnyc.org/publications/881005.

To review the Rhode Island’s Alzheimer’s plan go to http://www.ltgov.state.ri.us/alz/State%20Plan%20for%20ADRD%202013.pdf.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Pawtucket Hall of Fame Names Nesselbush As “Person of the Year”

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 27, 2014

Three City residents, Joan Crawley, former Director of the Pawtucket Leon Mathieu Senior Center, the late Kathleen Magill, a former Pawtucket City Councilor, and Miriam R. Plitt, President of the City’s Commission on Arts & Culture, will be inducted next month into the Pawtucket Hall of Fame. Philanthropist Elizabeth Higginson Weeden is this year’s historical inductee. All have made a significant impact on the City of Pawtucket.

Pawtucket dignitaries will induct this year’s Class of 2014 into the City’s most venerable institution, the Pawtucket Hall of Fame, at the upcoming 23rd annual dinner and induction ceremony. The Pawtucket Hall of Fame was founded in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the City of Pawtucket.

Interestingly, this year there will be a new twist in the Hall of Fame in that the induction committee has created a new category of inductee: the Pawtucket Person of the Year! “We’re excited about our new “Person of the Year” Award being given this year,” says Chair Ken McGill, noting that this prestigious accolade honors a person who has made a unique and superlative accomplishment that significantly benefits the entire City.

“Senator Donna Nesselbush will receive the distinct honor of being the first person ever to receive this recognition,” said McGill, who also serves as Pawtucket’s Registrar in the Board of Canvassers. McGill added, the Pawtucket Senator successfully advocated for civil rights for all Rhode Islanders when she championed the Senate Marriage Equality bill. This historic legislative proposal was passed (along with the House companion measure) and signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chaffee.

Over the years, Nesselbush also worked to help victims of domestic violence, the homeless, the injured and the disabled. “Nesselbush’s creative leadership and tenacious hard work played a vital role in the historic passage of marriage equality, successfully ending centuries of discrimination; this made her the obvious choice by the Committee to be Pawtucket’s first “Person of the Year” said McGill.

Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, notes “she has sponsored many important pieces of legislation, specifically bills to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, protect victims of crime, and to protect workers from exploitation. “I can think of no one more deserving of the recognition of being named to the Pawtucket Hall of Fame. It is my good fortune to call her a friend,” says Paiva Weed.

Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien agrees with both McGill and Paiva Weed about the selection of Nesselbush. “They couldn’t have gotten it more right, he said, noting that she is “one of our city’s strongest leaders.”
Making a Difference in the Community

Nesselbush’s long list of professional and personal accomplishments caught the attention of the Pawtucket Hall of Fame Committee. The 52-year old Pawtucket resident is a founding partner of the law firm of Marasco & Nesselbush, serving the injured and disabled. As an attorney, she has represented hundreds of Social Security Disability claimants at all levels of review before the Social Security Administration, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, the Appeals Council, the United States District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals.

Nesselbush, a graduate of Brown University and Suffolk University School of Law, now serves as Chief Judge of the Pawtucket Municipal Court and Vice-President of the Municipal Court Judges’ Association. She is the founder and Chair of the Rhode Island Bar Association’s Social Security Disability Committee.

In the past, the two term Senator has been honored for her work by numerous organizations. Most recently, in May of 2014 she received the distinguished Ada Sawyer Award from the Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association. She has also received Appreciation Awards from Crossroads Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. At Brown University she received the Sarah Doyle Prize “for making a significant contribution to women on campus and in the community,” and at Suffolk she received the Leo J. Wyman Award.

Bringing Marriage Equity to the Ocean State

With all of Nesselbush’s accomplishments, the Pawtucket Hall of Fame Committee zeroed in on her successful efforts to provide all Rhode Islander’s the right to marry the person they love.

Nesselbush had observed and participated in the intensely public (and simultaneously personal) debate on marriage equality over the years. Last year’s legislative policy debate put real faces to this religiously-charged issue, she said, noting that it was personal, political and professional all at the same time in that, as a judge, she was qualified to officiate at marriages, but as a person, she was not allowed to marry the woman of her dreams.

Nesselbush mentions a significant change in the times and in social mores, noting that as the debate raged, everyone seemed to know someone who is gay, and her lobbying conversations almost always began or ended with, “yes, I know ‘so and so’ who is gay; s/he’s great and has a great partner.”

Changing Rhode Island’s law to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry took a long time, a broad coalition in support, and an openly gay Speaker of the House, says Nesselbush, referencing former House Speaker Gordon Fox. The Pawtucket Senator added, “victory has many parents, and I was indeed honored to advocate for the issue alongside many outstanding grassroots organizations, like Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, and many local church and business groups and some of the state’s top political brass.

For almost 20 years, state lawmakers had grappled with the religiously charged issue of same-sex marriage. Throughout the years, Nesselbush attended many of the legislative hearings in support of same-sex marriage, only to see bills inevitably “held for further study.” Once she became a Senator, she clearly understood that this legislative code phrase often means the legislative proposal is…dead.

In 2010, as a newly elected Senator, Nesselbush was learning the legislative procedural ropes. Knowing that she was both new and walking a tight rope, she learned the fine art of vote counting. She scrambled to count votes only to realize that marriage equality would not in that year even get out of the House. Rather, the House passed a watered down, “skim milk” (in the words of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg) version entitled Civil Unions. Nesselbush voted against the Civil Unions bill, noting that she and Rhode Island’s LGBTQ community would not accept second class status. Though she acknowledged that Civil Unions bestowed some needed rights, she wanted to “take the high road,” voting against this less than desirable and often vilified vehicle. She wanted to stand for the proposition that separate is never equal; gay and lesbian couples deserve full marriage equality.”

Although the marriage equality bill was stymied in 2010, three years later Nesselbush was in the perfect position to champion the Senate bill; she was openly gay and no longer a rookie. She was determined to honor former Senator Rhoda Perry who carried this torch in the Senate for over 15 years, changing hearts and minds but falling short of getting the bill passed. Upon Perry’s retirement, Senator Sue Sosnowski of South Kingston, a long time civil rights advocate, was next in line to sponsor the marriage equality legislation. Nesselbush notes Sosnowski’s “generosity of spirit,” as she willingly stepped aside to allow the only openly gay Senator to “take the lead.” Nesselbush gives thanks and credit to Senate Majority Whip, Maryellen Goodwin, of the City for helping to massage the Senate’s customary seniority system, allowing Nesselbush to become the lead Senate sponsor.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to pass Nesselbush’s same sex marriage bill along with the House companion measure. Both measures were passed by the Senate, and by the House in concurrence, and Governor Lincoln Chaffee put his pen to paper, signing the historic measure into law on May 3, 2013.

Bowing to the powerful Catholic lobby, the General Assembly leadership put language in the House and Senate bills reiterating the constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, stipulating that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at a same sex marriage.

Through Nesselebush’s leadership, Rhode Island joined its New England neighbors, becoming the 10th state in the nation to enact marriage equality. Today, a total of 19 states and the District of Columbia have enacted marriage equality, and Nesselbush “predicts that the remaining ‘house of cards’ will fall quickly as ‘marriage equality fever’ spreads through the entire nation.”

The Pawtucket Hall of Fame 23rd Annual Dinner and Induction Ceremony is scheduled for October 28, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. (pre-induction reception at 6:00 p.m.) at the Le Foyer Club, 151 Fountain Street, Pawtucket. To purchase tickets, contact Ken McGill at 401 728-0500, Ext. 283.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering, aging, health care and medical issues. He is a member of the Pawtucket Hall of Fame Committee and can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

GAO: Report Says Older Persons Hit Hard by Student Loan Debt

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 19, 2014

By Herb Weiss

In her late 20s, Janet Lee Dupree took out a $ 3,000 student loan to help finance her undergraduate degree. While acknowledging that she did not pay off the student loan when she should have, even paying thousands of dollars on this debt, today the 72-year-old, still owes a whopping $15,000 because of compound interest and penalties. The Ocala, Florida resident, in poor health, will never pay off this student loan especially because all she can afford to pay is the $50 the federal government takes out of her Social Security check each month.

Citing Dupree’s financial problems in her golden years in his opening remarks at a Senate Panel hearing in Room 562 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL), of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, used his legislative bully pulpit to dispel the myth that student loan debt only happens to young students. “Well, as it turns out, that’s increasingly not the case,” he said.

Student Loan Debt Impacts Seniors, Too

But, last week’s Senate Aging panel hearing also put the spot light on fifty seven-year-old Rosemary Anderson, a witness who traveled from Watsonville, California, to inside Washington’s Beltway, detailing her student loan debt. Anderson remarked how she had accumulated a $126,000 loan debt (initially $64,000) to pay for her bachelor’s and master’s degree. A divorce, health problems combined with an underwater home mortgage kept her from paying anything on her student loan for eight years.

Anderson told Senate Aging panel members that with new terms to paying off her student loan debt, she expects to pay $526 a month for 24 years to settle the defaulted loan, setting her debt at age 81. The aging baby boomer will ultimately pay $87,487 more than her original student loan amount.

Like Anderson, a small but growing percentage of older Americans who are delinquent in paying off their student debts worry about their Social Security benefits garnished, drastically cutting their expected retirement income.

According to a 22 page Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Retirees,” released at the Sept. 10 Senate panel hearing, the amount that older Americans owe in outstanding federal student loans has increased six-fold, from $2.8 billion in 2005 to more than $18 billion last year. Student loan debt for all ages totals $ 1 trillion.

The GAO report noted that student loan debt reduces net worth and income, eroding the older person’s retirement security.

Nelson observed, “Large amounts of any kind of debt can put a person’s finances at risk, but I think that Ms. Dupree’s story shows that student debt has real consequences for those in or near retirement. And, the need to juggle debt on a fixed income may increase the likelihood of student loan default.”

Although the newly released GAO report acknowledged that seniors account for a small fraction of student loan debt holders, it noted that the numbers of seniors facing student loan debt between 2004 and 2010 had quadrupled to 706,000 households. Roughly 80 percent of the student loan debt held by retirement-aged Americans was for their own education, while only 20 percent of loans were taken out went to help finance a child or dependent’s education, the report said.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledges that student loan debt is a burden for thousands of Rhode Islanders, including a growing number of retirement-age borrowers who either took out student loans as young adults, or when they changed careers, or helped pay off a child’s education. “Student debt presents unique challenges to these older borrowers, who risk garnishment of Social Security benefits, accrual of interest, and additional penalties if they are forced to default,” says Whitehouse, stressing that pursuing an education should not result in a lifetime of debt.

Whitehouse sees the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which would allow approximately 88,000 Rhode Islanders to refinance existing student loans at the low rates that were available in 2013-2014, as a legislative fix to help those who have defaulted on paying off their student loans. “By putting money back in the pockets of Rhode Islanders we can help individual borrowers make important long-term financial decisions that will ultimately benefit the economy as a whole,” he says.

Garnishing Social Security

The GAO reports finds that student loan debt has real consequences for those in or near retirement The need to juggle debt on a fixed income may increase the likelihood of student loan default. In 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury garnished the Social Security retirement and survivor benefits of 33,000 people to recoup federal student loan debt. When the government garnishes a Social Security check, multiple agencies can levy fees in addition to the amount collected for the debt, making it even more challenging for seniors to pay off their loan.

Ranking Member, Susan M. Collins (R-ME) Ranking, on the Senate Panel, warned [because of a 1998 law] seniors with defaulted student loans may even see their Social Security checks slashed to see their Social Security check to $750 a month, a floor set by Congress in 1998. “This floor was not indexed for inflation, and is now far below the poverty line, adds Collins, who says she plans to introduce legislation shortly to adjust this floor for inflation and index it going forward, to make sure garnishment does not force seniors into poverty.

According to an analysis of government data detailed on the CNNMoney website, “More than 150,000 older Americans had their Social Security checks docked last year for delinquent student loans.”

Unlike other types of consumer debt, student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. Besides docking Social Security, the federal government can use a variety of ways to collect delinquent student loans, specifically docking wages or taking tax refund dollars. These strategies also cutting the income of the older person.

Some Final Thoughts…

“It’s very important that we focus on the big picture and the implications in play,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, noting that “Education debt is becoming a significant factor for younger workers in preparing for retirement, delaying the ability of people to retire and threatening a middle-class standard of living, both before and after they retire.

Connell says, “Its serious concern for some older Americans as approximately 6.9 million carry student loan debt – some dating back to their youth. But others took on new debt when they returned to school later in life and many others have co-signed for loans with their children or grandchildren to help them deal with today’s skyrocketing college costs.”

“It’s not just a matter of Federal student loan debt being garnished from Social Security payments if it has not been repaid, “ Connell added. “Outstanding federal debt also will disqualify an older borrower from eligibility for a federally- insured reverse mortgage.

“Families need to know the costs and understand the long-term burden of having to repay large amounts of student loan debt,” Connell concluded. “They also need information regarding the value of education, hiring rates for program graduates and the likely earnings they may expect.”

Finally, Sandy Baum, senior fellow with the Urban Institute, warns people to think before they borrow. “They should borrow federal loans, not private loans, she says, recommending that if their payments are more than they can afford, they should enroll in income-based repayment.

Addressing student loan debt issues identified by the GAO report, Baum suggests that Congress might ease the restrictions on discharging student loans in bankruptcy, and end garnishment of Social Security payment for student debt. Lawmakers could also strengthen income-based repayment, making sure that they don’t give huge benefits to people with graduate student debt and relatively high incomes.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

New Report Warns of Nation’s Housing Not Meeting Needs of Older Adults

Published in Pawtucket Times, on September 12, 2014

In the coming decades, America’s aging population is expected to skyrocket, but the nation is not ready to confront the housing needs of those age 50 and over, warns a new report released last week by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation. While it is expected that the number of adults in the U.S. aged 50 and over is expected to grow to 133 million by 2030, an increase of more than 70 percent since 2000, housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located, and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply, says the Harvard report released on Sept. 2.

According to Harvard Report, Housing America’s Older Adults – Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, housing stock is critical to quality of life for people of all ages, but especially for aging baby boomers and seniors.  High housing costs currently force a third of adults 50 and over—including 37 percent of those 80 and over—to pay more than 30 percent of their income for homes that may or may not fit their needs, forcing them to cut back on food, health care, and, for those 50-64, retirement savings.

 Challenges and Issues

The Harvard report also noted that much of the nation’s housing stock lacks basic accessibility features (such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles, and insufficient lighting, preventing older persons with disabilities from living safely and comfortably at home. Moreover, walkways, bike lanes, buses, subways, and other public transportation are not available to a majority of older adults who live in suburban and rural locations.  They become isolated from family and friends without the ability to drive.   Finally, disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature, costly institutionalization and readmission to hospitals.

“Recognizing the implications of this profound demographic shift and taking immediate steps to address these issues is vital to our national standard of living,” says Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. “While it is ultimately up to individuals and their families to plan for future housing needs, it is also incumbent upon policy makers at all levels of government to see that affordable, appropriate housing, as well as supports for long-term aging in the community, are available for older adults across the income spectrum.”

*Tackling the Challenges

“What jumped out at us from this study is that when it comes to where people want to live as they age, the ‘field of view,’ if you will, has very quickly widened. People today are thinking about this at a younger age with expectations that are vastly different from their parents’ assumptions,” observes AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Most people are worried that retirement savings will not cover their long-term needs. They want housing that is affordable, physically accessible and well-located. But they also realize that, eventually, they’ll need coordination with supports and services. The challenges have never been more evident.

“There are many ways to approach this, with choosing healthier lifestyles very high on the list. But the report makes it clear that where we live matters,” Connell continued. “Growing older in car-dependent suburban and rural locations is a real problem because pedestrian infrastructure is generally unfriendly if you have stopped driving. That leads to isolation, which can severely compound just about any negative that comes with aging. And if access to the health care system is restricted, many older adults – especially those with disabilities – are candidates for more costly premature institutionalization. We need to pre-empt that cycle by building communities where people can better age in place

The Harvard report notes that the older population in the U.S. will continue to exponentially grow with the large number of younger baby boomers who are now in their 50s. With lower incomes, wealth, homeownership rates, and more debt than generations before them, members of this large age group may be unable to cover the costs of appropriate housing or long-term care in their retirement years.

Indeed, while a majority of people over 45 would like to stay in their current residences as long as possible, estimates indicate that 70 percent of those who reach the age of 65 will eventually need some form of long-term care. In this regard, older homeowners are in a better position than older renters when they retire. The typical homeowner age 65 and over has enough wealth to cover the costs of in-home assistance for nearly nine years or assisted living for 6 and half years. The typical renter, however, can only afford two months of these supports.

“As Americans age, the need for safe and affordable housing options becomes even more critical,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of the AARP Foundation. “High housing costs, aging homes, and costly repairs can greatly impact those with limited incomes. The goal in our support of this report is to address the most critical needs of these households and it is AARP Foundation’s aim to provide the tools and resources to help them meet these needs now and in the future.”

Making Your Community Livable

Even with this alarming report that calls on policy makers to confront the looming housing crisis for the nation’s old, a large majority of aging boomers have not reached the age where their housing needs become a serious problem.  For those choosing to age in place in their community they can plan ahead to improve their future housing options.

“AARP is committed to this because we know it’s what most people want. That’s why we encourage residents to participate in how streets, roads, sidewalks, crosswalks are designed as well as make their thoughts known on decisions regarding access to recreational space.”

On Sept. 19, AARP Rhode Island will host an Active Living Workshop at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. Nationally recognized expert Dan Burden will lead the event, which will focus on proposed improvements along New River Road in Lincoln – specifically in the village of Manville. Representatives of the RI Department of Transportation will be on hand to discuss the project and hear suggestions to make this neighborhood more walkable. Mr. Burden will conduct a sidewalks and streets survey, followed by a discussion. The one day event, involving both a classroom style session and a community walking audit, is free and includes breakfast and lunch. You can sign up by logging on to www. aarp.org/ri. Or, you can call Deborah Miller at 401-248-2654.

According to AARP Rhode Island, the goals of this bring together residents, government and elected officials to promote a shared language.

Groups invited to participate include Lincoln town officials, Lincoln Senior Services, the Bicycle Coalition, the Lincoln Police Department, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, GrowSmart, the RI Department of Health and the Northern RI Chamber of Commerce.

To access Housing America’s Older Adults – Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, go to http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/housing-americas-older-adults-embargoed.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Throughout the Years at the Pawtucket Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 5, 2015

It was over 16 years ago when Kristine Kilmartin married Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin. The Smithfield native had lived in the city for a few months and. while she was driving through Slater Memorial Park in January 1999 with her new husband, she asked, “Why doesn’t the City take more advantage of its green space?” She wondered why Pawtucket couldn’t plan an event like the Scituate Arts Festival in its vast 209-acre park.

Ultimately, the Kilmartins turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts festival. The green light was given and the work began. After a month of meetings, discussion and planning, the City’s 18-person committee kicked off its first arts festival in June 1999.

“It is hard to believe that 16 Pawtucket Arts Festivals have gone by so fast,” says Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who has served as an honorary co-chair with his wife, Kristine, since its inception. “When we began in 1999, there was a lot of uncertainty about the event’s success and longevity, as with any new venture,” recalls the lawyer and former Pawtucket police officer. My how the Pawtucket Arts Festival has grown.

Kilmartin remembers the Opening Gala was scarcely attended. However, the organizers were not discouraged, he says. “Everyone involved felt we had a good product, and as long as we stuck with it we would be successful,” he added.

Over the years city officials and many dedicated volunteers continued to work hard, he notes, stressing that it “now feels like the Pawtucket Arts Festival is a permanent part of our community.”

With the diversity and quality of programming over 16 years, Kilmartin finds it hard to single out one particular favorite event. But, when pressed by this tenacious columnist, he admits, “We enjoyed the Philharmonic in the Park and the Dragon Boat races,” noting that these two signature events provide “great family fun.”

Looking forward, the fifty-two-year-old lifelong Pawtucket resident believes that new forms of community outreach must happen to attract more people to the festival, this being vital for the Arts Festival’s continued growth and future success. The Attorney General also calls for the broadening of the artistic diversity and ethnicity of its programming, keeping the month-long Arts Festival “fresh.”

A Look Back: Just a Small Sampling

Since 1999, Pawtucket’s Arts Festival organizers have created a citywide showcase of visual and performing arts, interactive workshops, music, theatre and dance performances. Where else could you enjoy a wide variety of music, from blues, jazz, Zydeco, classical, folk, and even pops? Over the years 50,000 people came to listen to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Pop Orchestra, the event concluding with a dazzling firework show over the park’s pond.

Over 15 years, what a listing of musical groups that have played the Pawtucket Arts Festival. World famous Jazz artists Dave McKenna, Scott Hamilton and Gray Sargent, Grammy-nominated Duke Robillard, the internationally acclaimed “Ambassador to the Blues,” and Consuelo and Chuck Sherba’s Aurea, a performance ensemble thrilled the audiences. Many came to dance to the tunes of French-Canadian Conrad Depot, Celtic group Pendragon, folk musicians Atwater & Donnelly and Plain Folk to name a few. Many of these groups appeared on the stages at Slater Mill’s Ethnic and Labor Festival and the Stone Soup Coffee House at Slater Memorial Park or at the folk group’s home venue at St. Paul’s Parish House.

Both young and old alike enjoyed watching the Big Nazo Puppets, clowns or listening to story tellers, including Mark Binder and Valerie Tutson. Parents and their children even packed Shea High School’s auditorium to watch the incredible Dan Butterworth’s Marionette show.

And where else could your children learn the art of making glass, raku pottery or carving stone and wood? Of course, at the City’s Arts Festival. Children workshops, led by Lee Segal, taught tile painting. Youngsters learned how to create sculptures out of junk pulled from the Blackstone River. Only in the City of the “Industrial Revolution” if you had attended one of our art festivals over the last 15 years.

Every year at the City’s Festival Pier thousands of spectators have lined up along the Seekonk River to watch the Dragon Boat races. Art lovers visited one-of-a kind exhibits in art galleries and artist studios throughout Pawtucket. Those attending the City’s Arts Festival watched performances by the Everett Dance Theatre, Fusionworks, Cadence Dance Project, and great plays at the Sandra Gamm Feinstein Theatre, Mixed Magic Theater and Community Player. Film buffs came to meet writers and filmmakers at the Pawtucket Film Festival, questioning these individuals about their film-making techniques.

For movie buffs, Pawtucket-based Mirror Image, has organized its Pawtucket Film Festival for over 15 years in the 100-seat theater in the City’s Visitor Center. Rhode Islander Michael Corrente was one of the more notable film makers who accepted an invitation to attend, and many others followed. The film organizers even brought the internationally-acclaimed Alloy Orchestra to perform a live, original score for Man With a Movie Camera at Tolman High School.

You were also able to watch classic films at other Arts Festival venues, too. One year dozens came to watch Cinema Paradiso (with English subtitles) by Giuseppe Tornatore, projected on the walls of a mill building on Exchange Street, with live music.

Hundreds also gathered at Slater Park to watch chain saw-toting environmental artist and sculptor Michael Higgins Billy Rebele create pieces of artwork on salvaged tree stumps.

While focusing on bringing artistic and musical events, festival organizers did not forget to bring public art into the City. In 15 years, six permanent sculptures were donated to the City of Pawtucket. An original oil painting of the Hope Webbing Mill in Pawtucket, painted by internationally-recognized Artist Gretchen Dow-Simpson, was purchased and donated to the City in 2004, and is now showcased in the Mayor’s Office.

Some Pawtucket Arts Festival Trivia…

As Kilmartin remembered, the first opening gala, held in the City library is 1999 attracted a small crowd, around 35 people. At the end of the evening each person was given Ronzio pizzas to take home. Last year we saw over 2,000 people gather at this long awaited opening event. Crowds at the Dragon Boat races have also held steady over the years, bringing thousands to the City’s Festival Pier. For over a decade, over 6,000 people have attended the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra Concert in Slater Memorial Park. The Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance, with their very generous $15,000 donation continue to make this event happen.

For 15 years, Patricia Zacks, of the Providence-based Camera Werks and lifelong Pawtucket resident, has organized a photo contest at every arts festival, which includes participation from students from Pawtucket Public Schools, where winning photos are judged by some of the State’s top recognized photographers select their favorite photos that will appear in the City of Pawtucket’s Photo Calendar. Thousands of Pawtucket students also learned the art of photography from Zacks and over 180 scenes of Pawtucket have appeared in these calendars.

During these years, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Boston also sponsored the Chinese performances that were held throughout the day of the Dragon Boat races. Pawtucket’s annual race is now being promoted nationally by other Dragon Boat festivals. In its second year, in 2000, the Dragon Boat races second year, American Airlines donated 18 free round trip tickets to Taiwan to the winning boat, an estimated value of $60,000. This year the winning professional team will take home $10,000, while the local team winner will receive $5,000.

In the early years trolley tours led by Zacks of the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative and Len Lavoie, of RICIR, initially organized trips to mill buildings throughout the City. Because of these trolley tours, at least two couples have relocated to Pawtucket to live in mill lofts in the City’s historic downtown. The trolley tours, showcasing Pawtucket artist’s one-of-a-kind works, would later be replaced by XOS- Exchange Street Open Studios and Arts Market Place Pawtucket at the historic Pawtucket Armory.

In 2005, from an idea sparked by then program chair, Patricia Zacks and community activist and Stone Soup President, Richard Walton, led them to meet with Paw-Sox executives to ‘go big’ which set off a series of acts to perform at McCoy Stadium beginning in 2006. These artists included: Bob Dylan, (twice), John Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Drop Kick Murph’s; Kenny Loggins and the Boston Pops Orchestra; Further and Willie Nelson.

Since 1999 the steady growth of participating artists, corporate sponsors, volunteers and attendees indicate quality programming and a well-managed event that has become a permanent fixture in the Pawtucket community. Over 16 years, the Pawtucket Arts Festival has awakened the pride of Pawtucket’s residents and continues to stimulate the creative energies of its artist community, and have an economic impact on the City.

Chair John Baxter and his hard working Board of Directors (Rich Waltrous, Keith Fayan, Lori-Ann Gagne and this columunist), Arts Festival Manager Joe Giocastro, Artistic Director Mary Lee Partington, and Volunteer Coordinators Patricia Zacks and Paul Audette, prepare to unveil this year’s Arts Festival tonight at the Blackstone River Party/Taste of Pawtucket at 6 p.m. at Slater Mill. Let the show begin. See you there.

For a complete event listings go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org, or 1-800-454-2882.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, medical and health care issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com. He serves as the Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs officer and sits of the Board of Directors of Pawtucket Arts Festival.